Smart guide to portable camera lighting

This smart guide sheds some light on portable lighting solutions and useful light modifiers.

(Credit: Univex Uniflash camera image by John Kratz, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lighting can make or break a photo, as underexposed images usually suffer from a lack of detail and an increase in noise and blurriness.

Also, sometimes, natural light isn't enough to illuminate your subjects properly, and that's where artificial light, such as on-camera flashes and continuous LED lighting, comes in.

In this smart guide, we'll give you an insight on some of the more commonly used portable lighting solutions and accessory options that are available, along with some useful tips. Do note that this list is by no means exhaustive — you can still find alternative lighting gear and apply them creatively.

Different categories of portable camera lighting

On-camera flashes

(Credit: Nikon)

Unlike the inbuilt flash on your camera, external flash units that attach to the hotshoe have bounce and swivel heads, which are useful for creative flash photography. They can sync with your dSLR or interchangeable lens camera (ILC) by balancing the intensity of the flash with ambient light. Besides having more power to illuminate faraway objects, on-camera flashes also come with AF assist illuminators, which can help you focus better in low-light conditions. Some come with a modelling light function, which fires a burst of flashes repeatedly, allowing users to preview a scene before image capture.

These flashes can even be used off-camera for more creative purposes, where users can trigger them via infrared. Also, some flashes can be set to slave mode and will fire when it detects a secondary flash.

There are plenty of third party wireless triggers that use radio waves, which will also allow you to use your flash off-camera.

Compatible with: some advanced compact cameras, ILCs and dSLRs.

Scenarios used in: events, portraits, product and sports photography.

Macro and ring lights

(Credit: Metz and Canon)

Conventional flashes are usually blocked by the camera's lens when shooting close-ups, causing harsh shadows to appear in the image. These macro and ring lights can be positioned very near to your subject, often on the lens barrel, itself, allowing the user to throw light into hard-to-reach areas.

dSLRs have the option of either using a dedicated ring flash, which can sync exposure via the camera's hotshoe; or a macro flash, which features two or more miniature flash heads that are mounted via an adapter on the camera's lens barrel. Fret not if your camera doesn't have a hotshoe — there are some models that come in the form of LED ring lights, which can be attached via a rail on your shooter's tripod mount.

Compatible with: compact cameras, ILCs and dSLRs.

Scenarios used in: macro and food photography.

Continuous lighting

(Credit: Litepanels)

One of the most popular types of continuous lighting are Light-emitting diode (LED) lights, due to their lower energy consumption, longer lifetime and smaller size. LED lights are usually favoured by videographers, as they provide bright, flicker-free illumination, are easy to setup and allow you an instant "preview" of how your image will look so as to make adjustments, accordingly. They are also more compact and cheaper than traditional fluorescent or incandescent movie lights. Smaller lights can also be handheld and be used with almost any camera out there.

Compatible with: almost every camera.

Scenarios used in: videography.



(Credit: Bundle Monster)

You may not need a flash when shooting outdoors. A handy tool, such as a reflector — made of white, silver and gold material that measures about 80cm to 110cm in diameter — can help provide fill light, to lighten harsh shadows and to evenly light a scene. This lightweight tool can be folded down to a fraction of its size, making it highly portable. A large Styrofoam board also provides the same effect, at a much lower price.

Light modifiers

(Credit: Gary Fong and Omnibounce)

These accessories allow you to change how you want your light to illuminate your subject, as well as improving the quality of light coming from your flash. Light modifiers, such as the Gary Fong Lightsphere and Omnibounce diffuser — attached to your external flash unit — works by diffusing light. It eliminates shadows and blown highlights.

Smart Tips

Use natural light

Some pictures just look better in daylight. Using natural light via an indirect light source, such as a large window, can provide a more pleasing feel to an image without looking artificial.

Make use of your environment

If you forgot your flash and the lighting isn't ideal, try using alternative light sources, such as table lamps, candles, lamp posts or electrical signboards, to illuminate your subjects. This also gives the viewer a sense of the environment.

Bounce your flash

Using direct flash can look harsh. Try bouncing your flash on larger surfaces, such as walls or ceilings. This type of indirect lighting reduces harsh shadows and can give your image a softer and diffused look.

DIY your own light modifiers

Instead of buying them off the shelf, try making your own bounce cards for your external flash from cereal boxes. Translucent film canister holders can also be used to soften your camera's on-board flash.

Tweak your white balance

Instead of leaving your white balance on auto mode, adjust your camera's colour temperature to reduce any colour cast on your image caused by a flash.

Via CNET Asia

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